Tobacco gang sent to prison

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FIVE men jailed for plotting to import seven million counterfeit cigarettes from China have had confiscation orders – totalling more than £2.2m – overturned after an Appeal Court test case.

Top judges ruled none of the men – two from Lytham and three from the south east – could be said to have led “a criminal lifestyle”.

Stephen Mallinson, 51, of Badgers Walk East, Lytham; Mark Midgley, 36, of Ballam Road, Lytham; Naripdeep Bajwa, 55, of Esher, Surrey; Harish Sahnan, 46, of Four Oaks, Sutton, and Baljunder Sohi, 44, of Taplow, Berks, were handed jail terms of between two-and-a-half and four years at Manchester Crown Court in 2006.

They all either admitted, or were convicted, of a plot to import seven million Chinese counterfeit Benson & Hedges Gold cigarettes into the port of Felixstowe on a container ship.

The five were arrested before the ship arrived in UK waters in September 2004 and the fake cigarettes seized but, had the plot succeeded, more than £1m in duty would have been evaded.

And, in June 2008, a judge ruled all five men had lived “criminal lifestyles” and hit them with confiscation bills totalling more than £2.2m – effectively every penny they had.

Failed

But overturning those orders at London’s Appeal Court, Lord Justice Aikens said prosecutors had failed to prove Bajwa, Sohi, or Sahnan, were involved in the conspiracy for at least six months – a pre-requisite for any confiscation orders dolled out under the Proceeds of Crime Act, which allows the authorities to recoup any ill-gotten gains made by criminals.

The judge, sitting at the appeal court with Mr Justice Irwin and Judge Anthony Roberts QC, also said none of the five had been liable to pay excise duty on the cigarettes at the moment when the container ship passed within the limits of the port of Felixstowe on September 21, 2004.

None of them could be said to have obtained a “pecuniary advantage” from the conspiracy and the judge who made the confiscation orders was “not correct to conclude that they had a ‘criminal lifestyle’”, Lord Justice Aikens said.

And the judge concluded: “Accordingly, these appeals must be allowed and the confiscation orders imposed must be set aside”.